I have already brought up the subject of Conciliarism in Old Catholic Ecclesiology and Northern Catholicism. Conciliarism was a reforming movement in the European Church from about the fourteenth century. It promoted the view that the highest authority in the Church is the Ecumenical Council and not the Pope acting outside or above the communion of the Church. This movement was a reaction against the corrupt Papacy, the schism between Avignon and Rome in particular, which caused the convening of the Council of Pisa (1409), the Council of Constance (1414–1418) and the Council of Basel (1431–1449). Thus, Conciliarism prevailed and gave rise to a whole reforming movement in the Church, especially in the Northern countries. The Papacy got its own back through the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517), and Ultramontanism reached its paroxysm in 1870 with the definition of Papal infallibility.
Why an article on a subject that would seem to concern the Roman Catholic Church? The answer is simple: the Church of England at the time was still in communion with Rome as was the Church of France under Louis XIV. Anglicanism, like Gallicanism and Old Catholicism, finds its legitimacy by identifying with Conciliar ecclesiology.
The Papacy, as historians know, was extremely corrupt in the Middle Ages, and the great issue at the time was the constant dispute between the popes and the kings of Europe, especially Boniface VIII (1235-1303) and Philip the Fair of France. This dispute resulted in the bull Unam Sanctam, which asserted papal power over both the spiritual and secular “swords” and that salvation was impossible outside the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope.
The history of the Avignon Papacy is complex, and can be studied in standard church history books or from web articles, so I won’t go into it here. Eventually, the only way to solve the conflict was to have an authority higher than the popes, so that a judgement would be possible to decide which pope should abdicate. This was Conciliarism, whose first Council (Pisa 1409) was a fiasco and only succeeded in adding a third pope! The Council of Constance (1414–1418) was more successful and brought an end to the Schism by deposing John XXIII and Benedict XIII. The third pretender to the papacy abdicated. Constance decreed that the Ecumenical Council should enjoy a higher authority to that of the Pope. As mentioned, the Papacy struck back and Conciliarism became marginalised.
Now, for the theory of Conciliarism. It comes largely from the ideas of William of Occam, and promotes a greater degree of democracy and consultation in the Church. Authority not only comes from God, but also from the people. The Church is the congregation of all the faithful, and this is the infallible Church, not the Pope, who is as fallible as anyone else. William was amazingly advanced, and advocated that Councils should include the participation of lay men and women! It was also a movement against the excesses of clericalism.
Naturally, the greatest opposition came from clericalists and the dreaded Inquisition representing the oppressive aspect of Papal power. The neo-scholastics like Thomas Cajetan worked for a reassertion of the supremacy of the Pope, whose authority as successor of St Peter came from God. The Pope received his authority from Christ, and delegated it to the bishops (power of order distinguished from the power of jurisdiction). This is the essence of Ultramontanist ecclesiology.
Despite the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent, Conciliarism survived and formed the basis of Febronianism, Gallicanism and Josephinism. The schism of Henry VIII fell into the same pattern as the French Church in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the only difference being that France did not break as totally as did England. France simply kept Rome at arm’s length, but the theory was the same: the King was the boss in his own country, and the Bishop in his diocese.
Some RC apologists affirm that Conciliarism is dead since the Ultramontanists got their own back and Old Catholics are too few to matter. It’s a point of view, but there were serious concilarist elements at Vatican II. Lumen Gentium removes emphasis from the Papacy to an extent in favour of the College of Bishops. The Eastern Orthodox are completely concilarist in their ecclesiology and attach much less importance to a “living magisterium” than to Tradition. However, they had no historical connection with the above-mentioned events of western church history. Conciliarism and anti-Ultramontanism are characteristic of Old Catholics and Anglicanism.
It is ironical that Roman Catholic traditionalists use the word “conciliar” in a derogatory way to judge Vatican II and its wake as opposed to Tradition. Anglican Catholics and Old Catholics share Conciliarism as an essential characteristic of our ecclesiology and fidelity to Catholic Tradition through the living communion of the Bishops and all the faithful, both clerical and lay. This vision of ecclesiology has all kinds of consequences, some of which have been happily adopted in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II, notably the participation of the laity in church governance and de-emphasis of clericalism.
The Anglican Catholic Church, as most other Churches of Anglican tradition, attach great importance to the Synod as the governing body of the Diocese and the Province. This Synod is made up of a house of bishops (at provincial level, or the Bishop at diocesan level), clergy and lay delegates elected by their parishes.
Over and above considerations of liturgies and cultural aspects, Conciliarism is the most distinctive part of our Anglican heritage and tradition.